The Arbor review by Peter Larkin

Clio Barnard’s The Arbor (2010) 1hr 34mins

“It’s always the parents” a friend once told me, in regard to the scene in John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under The Influence (1974), when Muriel asks her father to stand up. That very quote echoed in my brain while watching Clio Barnard’s The Arbor, a stunning documentary biopic of playwright Andrea Dunbar (1961-1990), best known for ‘Rita, Sue and Bob Too’, which was adapted for the screen and directed by social realist filmmaker Alan Clarke. Dunbar wrote her first play The Arbor (1977) at the remarkable age of fifteen, for a classroom assignment for GCSE English. She reworked it with the help of her teacher to get it to a performance standard. She premièred it at the Royal Court Theatre, London in 1980 directed by Max Stafford-Clark.

The Arbor is Dunbar’s local housing estate Brafferton Arbor in Bradford, West Yorkshire. The style of the film is filmed with the actors lip-synching to the very people they portray, who were family and friends of Dunbar. They talk to the camera and also play out scenes, all of which are both truthful and unforgettable. Dunbar had three children with three different fathers. Natalie Gavin, who resembles a young Samantha Bond, portrays Dunbar as a teenager. Gavin is more beautiful than the real Dunbar, but this does not matter, her performance is both realistic and memorable. There are surrealistic and almost tranquil scenes of Andrea’s teenage years. For the recreation of her play ‘The Arbor’ she addresses the camera, states the scene and acts it out with family and friends. All of this happens on her front lawn, while the neighbours watch. It has to be seen to be believed.

If there is one performance you will never forget, it is that of Andrea’s eldest daughter Lorraine Dunbar. It is a riveting performance by Manjinder Virk. Her story brought tears to my eyes. It’s like a dagger to your heart. Her mother did not love her as much as she did her other two children because Lorraine was half Pakistani. This film should be experienced. As a friend once said to me, after the filmmakers have made the film, it is not their film anymore it belongs to the audience. We, as the audience, should embrace this masterpiece of filmmaking, discuss it with people and even ourselves.

Film critic Roger Ebert often references the following from fellow critic Robert Warshow. “A man goes to the movies. A critic must be honest enough to admit he is that man.”

Roger Ebert said “That doesn’t make one person right and another wrong. All it means is that you know how they really felt, not how they thought they should feel”

The Arbor will spark that recreation of intense and truthful discussion about real people, who most of us never knew.

As Ebert has said “I believe that empathy is the most essential quality of civilization”

You will feel empathy, you will reflect and try to understand Lorraine.

The Arbor will leave a lasting impression, whether you love it or hate it. You never will forget where you were when you saw it. Every time you think about it, you will remember Lorraine’s face, her tragic situation and choices. Heartbreaking.

Three out of nine of Ingmar Bergman’s children attended his funeral, because of his neglect as a father and his affairs with various women. Harold Pinter’s affairs with Joan Bakewell and Lady Antonia Fraser destroyed his then wife Vivien Merchant who died from alcoholism in 1982. Pinter’s son Daniel did not speak to him for the rest of his life. Watch it and find out what happens to Lorraine.

If you leave the cinema hating The Arbor you will repress it deep into the ground. If you love it you will bury it into your subconscious forever. I empathised with Lorraine. I left the cinema a broken man because it wasn’t fair. Lorraine needed her mother.

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